Don’t Go Chasing Wonderwalls

Because (What’s the Story) Morning Glory is my favorite hard rock album of the ’90s, and because Noel and Liam Gallagher look so damn cool in dark shades, I always find myself a little more absorbed than is probably healthy for a person my age in the comings and goings of Oasis. I was hooked from the moment they so rudely—contemptuously, even—cleared a path on my local modern-rock station with “Supersonic” in the mid ’90s. Though there’s a clumsy, self-conscious, paint-by-numbers aspect to even some of Noel Gallagher’s better songs—think of the awkward couplets in “Champagne Supernova” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” or the shameless Coca-Cola commercial that is “Shaker Maker”—his arena-size pop hooks are as technically masterful as T-Rex’s or Slade’s or Hysteria-era Def Leppard’s. More importantly—and the main reason I can obsess over Oasis but not over any of the above—they’re fronted by Liam Gallagher, my favorite rock voice of the past 10 years. And I mean “rock” as a personal style, not merely a genre; as a coworker recently gushed, “He’s full-on rock!” (He was partly talking about how dumb the guy is, but it’s a point well-taken.) Save Johnny Rotten and the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, Liam can get more mileage out of a sneer than anyone else I can think of (pity that Axl wasn’t born a cockney; otherwise you might include him in there too), but his vulnerable side is just as affecting; when he sings, “There are many things that I/would like to say to you/But I don’t know how” in “Wonderwall,” you can feel the whole world wishing they were his mother.

Or at least the entire population of Great Britain. Though Oasis eventually, on the strength of “Wonderwall,” a few flashy videos, and the Gallagher brothers’ well-timed third-finger salutes in the press, became superstars in America, there was less a backlash against them on this side of the ocean than perhaps an inevitable realization that, in a marketplace where no one really knew or cared if there was a significant difference between Third Eye Blind and Sister Hazel, Oasis were merely the most visible of the mid-’90s Brit-pop storm. (It’s instructive to note that the members of Blur couldn’t get a good table at Burger King in Illinois, but minus all the fanfare that their rivals so brilliantly exploited at every turn, it was their “Song 2” that pumped up NHL crowds and hawked lots of beer.) Furthermore, the Gallaghers followed up an alterna-corn classic (Morning Glory) with a huge, Arthurian thud (1997’s Be Here Now, all fox-trots and topographic tarkuses); their 15 minutes were up before you even got to the second chorus of “All Around the World.”

For Anglocentrics like myself, though, they’re still the most compelling pop icons on the planet, so it pleases me to report that the group’s new CD, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, is, if not exactly a return to Glory days, at least a more frolicsome jaunt through the pretensions that clogged up Be Here Now (they haven’t ditched the Mellotron just yet, but they’ve employed it to more charming, possibly even self-effacing, effect). Not surprisingly, many of Standing‘s strongest moments belong to Liam. His sandpaper rasp, which once soared above Noel’s more spacious mix, is now forced to scrape its way through. But he’s still, er, tops, man, especially in the acid-washed “Who Feels Love,” the turgid but irresistible bombast of “Roll It Over” (featuring the clunker “Look around at all the plastic people/who live without a care”—it’s still maybe the best song here), and the artillery-powered single, “Go Let It Out,” the group’s most explicit foray into hip-hop yet (which I guess just shows how far they still have to go. . . . Where are the Chemical Brothers when you need them?). Even some of the wince-worthy numbers—and what’s an Oasis album without at least a couple of those?—benefit from Liam’s larynx: His first self-penned song, “Little James,” an ode to his son, is a nursery cryme of the highest order—”live for your toys/even though they make noise,” etc.—but damn if he doesn’t come across like the world’s most caring papa since Eminem anyway. Even on “Put Yer Money Where Your Mouth Is,” the most pathetic song of the set, the vocalist inexplicably manages some great knockabout fun with the phrase “judgment day.”

In fact, toward the end of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, there’s a whole limp stretch of songs whose melodies could barely carry the weight on a Kula Shaker album. And how you can stand on one shoulder of more than one giant—or why you’d want to do such a thing—is a riddle that’s not even much fun to think about. But for a genre that has slid from Oasis-Blur-Suede-Pulp to Beta Band-Travis-Mansun-Gay Dad, this record is at least a thumbs-up to (and not just for) the fans. They might be giants after all.